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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Abbess Of Vlaye » CHAPTER V. THE CAPTAIN OF VLAYE.
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 Danger, that by night sends forth a vanguard of fears, and quells the spirits before it delivers the attack, pursues a different course by day, seeking to surprise rather than to intimidate. Seldom had June sun shone on a fairer scene than that which the lifting of the river mists delivered to the eyes of the dwellers in the chateau on the following morning, or on one more fit to raise the despondent courage. The tract of meadow land that, enfolded by the river, formed the only clear ground about the house lay in breezy sunshine, which patches of shadow, flung on the sward by such of the surrounding trees as rose a little higher than the ordinary, did but heighten. The woods which enclosed this meadow land, here with a long straight wall of oaks, there with broken clumps of trees that left to view distant glades and alleys, sparkled, where the sun lighted their recesses, with unnumbered dew-drops, or with floating gossamers, harbingers of a fair day. The occasional caw of a rook flying fieldward over the open, or the low, steady coo of the pigeons in the great stone cote beside the gate, added the last touch of peace to the scene; a scene so innocent that it forbade the notion of danger and rendered it hard to believe that amid surroundings like these, and under the same sky of blue, man's passions were, in parts not distant, turning an earthly heaven to a hell.
Access to these meadows was by a sled-road, which, starting from the great gate, wound round the wall of the courtyard, and then, turning its back on the house, passed by a small stone bridge over the brook which had once supplied the moat. From the bridge the track ran across the meadows to the abandoned farms which stood on the river bank half a mile from the chateau. The only building among these which retained a roof was a long wooden barn, still used to contain waste fodder and the like.
It was from this bridge, a narrow span of stone, that Bonne, the following morning, gazed on the scene, her hand raised to shade her eyes from the sun. The whole of the Vicomte's household, with the exception of a deaf cook and of Solomon, who could be trusted, were gone to the hay-field; some with delight, as welcoming any change, and some with whispers and surmises. Thence their shrill voices and laughter were borne by the light breeze to the girl's ears.
Nothing had been heard of the Countess's train, and her concealment during the hours of danger had perplexed both the Vicomte and his advisers. His pride would not permit him to make her privy to the coming visit, or the precautions which it rendered needful. Yet without acknowledging his inability to protect her, it was not easy to confine her to one room. For, with the elasticity of youth, she had risen little the worse for her adventures.
The council sat long, and in the end the better course seemed to be to invite her to the hay-field. As it fell out, a small matter gave a natural turn to the proposal. Her riding-dress--and more of her dress than that--was so stained and torn as to be unwearable. And Bonne could not help her, for the child, though perfectly formed, and of a soft prettiness, was cast in a smaller mould. Here, then, was a Countess without so much as a stocking, had not Bonne thought of a little waiting-girl of about the same shape and size. This girl's holiday attire was borrowed, and found to be a charming fit--at least in the eyes of Roger. For the lad, because the Countess was shy, had become, after a sort, her protector.
The child's timidity was at standing odds with her rank, and on first descending in this dress she had been on the point of tears, as infants cry when they think themselves the objects of ridicule. A very little and she had fled. But a moment later, whether she read something that was not ridicule in the lad's eyes, as she walked up and down the terrace, or youth stirred in her and raised a childish pleasure in the masquerade, she preened herself, blushing, and presently she was showing herself off. So that at the first word she fell in with the notion of completing her make-believe by spending the day in the hay.
Fortunately, Fulbert, the steward, who attended her like a dog, and like a dog glared suspicion on all who approached her, raised no objection. And about three hours before noon the move was made. Bonne had gone with Mademoiselle as far as this bridge, where she now stood, and thence had sent her forward with Roger and Fulbert on the plea that she must herself attend to household cares. Nevertheless, as the three receded in the sun's eye, she lingered awhile looking thoughtfully after them.
The dainty creature, tripping in her queer travesty between her foster-father and Roger's misshapen form, showed like a fairy between two gnomes. Bonne watched and smiled, and presently the smile became a tear, for Roger's sake. She had other and more pressing cares, other and heavier burdens this morning; but her heart was warm for him. She had been mother as well as sister to him, and the reflection that his deformity--once she had heard a peasant call him goblin--would probably for ever set him apart and deprive him of the joys of manhood touched her with grief as she stood.
The tear was still on her lid when she heard a step behind her, turned and saw des Ageaux--to her des Voeux. He read trouble in her clear, youthful face, fancied she was in fear, and paused to reassure her. "Why so sad, mademoiselle," he asked, "when she"--with a good-humoured nod in the direction of the Countess--"who has so much more to fear, trips along gaily? She is another being to-day."
"I have others to fear for," she replied.
"Your brother?"
She fancied that he was about to press her to bring him to Charles, and to change the subject she avowed her trouble. Why, heaven knows; for though her presence of mind the previous evening had won a meed of admiration from him, he had made no sign.
"I was not thinking of him," she confessed. "I was thinking of Roger. I was thinking how sad it is--for him."
He understood her. "You make too much of it," he said lightly. "He has health and strength, and a good spirit when your father is not present. His arm is long, and will always keep his head. Have you never heard what M. de Gourdon, Governor of the March, who is--who is like your brother, you know--once said of himself? 'My back?' quoth he to one who mentioned it. 'My friends mind it not, and my enemies have never seen it!'"
She flushed and a light came into her eyes. "Oh, brave!" she cried. "Brave! And you think that Roger----"
"I think that Roger may some day make himself feared. And he who is feared," the Lieutenant continued, with a half cynical, half whimsical smile, "has ever love on his other hand--as surely as dog follows the hand that feeds it."
The words had barely left his lips when a wolf-hound, whose approach they had not noticed, darted upon them, and, leaping up at the Lieutenant's face, nearly overthrew him. Bonne recoiled, and with a cry looked round for help. Then she perceived that it was with joy, not with rage, that the dog was beside himself; for again and again, with sharp shrill cries of pleasure, it leapt on the Lieutenant, striving to lick his hands, his face, his hair. In vain he bade it "Down! Down, dog!" In vain he struck at it. It set its paws against his breast, and though often repulsed, as often with slobbering mouth and hanging tongue sought his face.
When he had a little calmed its transports and got it to heel, he turned to her, and for once showed an embarrassed countenance. "It is a dog," he said, "a dog of mine that has followed me."
"I see that," she replied, smiling with something of mischief in her looks.
"It must have followed me----"
"A full mile this morning," she said, stooping and patting the hound, which, with a dubious condescension, permitted the greeting. "It is both fed and dry. And its name is----"
He looked at her, but did not answer.
"Does this often happen to you?" she continued, feeling on a sudden a strange freedom with him. "To talk of dogs and they appear? Have you the habit when your horse falls lame of tying your dog to a tree, and placing a sufficiency of food and water by it to last it two days?" And then, when he did not answer her, "Who are you, M. des Voeux?" she said in a different tone. "Whence do you come, and what is your business?"
"Have I not told you," he answered, "that I wish to communicate through your brother with the Crocans? That is my business."
"But you did not know when you came to us that I had a brother," she replied, "or that he had joined the Crocans, or that we were like to be in these straits. So that you did not come for that. Why did you come?" confronting him with clear eyes. "Are we to count you friend or enemy? Be frank with me and I will be frank with you."
He looked at her with the first gleam of admiration in his eyes. But he hesitated. In the candour of a young girl who, laying aside coquetry and advantage, speaks to a man as to a comrade there lies a charm new to him who has not known a sister; more new to him, more surprising to him whose wont has lain among the women of a court--women whose light lives and fickle ambitions mark them of those who are but just freed from the seraglio. He smiled at her, openly acknowledging by his silence and his air that he had a secret; acknowledging also, and in the same way, that he held her equal. But he shook his head. "In a little time I will be frank with you, mademoiselle," he said. "It is true I have a secret, and at this moment I cannot tell it safely."
"You do not trust me?"
"I trust no one at this moment," he answered steadily.
It was not the answer she expected. She had thought he would quibble. She was impressed by his firmness, but she did not betray the feeling. "Good!" she said, with the least possible lifting of her head. "Then you must not expect to be trusted, or that I shall bring you to my brother."
"But you promised, mademoiselle."
"That I would do so when I could do so--safely," she retorted with mischievous emphasis. "It is your own word, sir, and I shall not feel that I can do so--safely--until I learn who you are. I suppose if my brother were here you would tell him?"
Her colour rose. "You would tell him, and you will not tell me!" she cried indignantly.
"Now you are angry," he replied smiling. "How can I appease you?"
She was not really angry. But she turned on her heel, willing to let him think it. "By hiding yourself until this is over," she answered. And leaving him standing on the bridge, where he had found her, she made her way back to the house, where the only man left was Solomon in his hutch beside the gate. He was an old servant, a garrulous veteran of high renown for the enormous fables he had ever on his lips--particularly when the Vicomte reverted to the greatness of the house before Coutras. Mademoiselle as she entered paused to speak to him. "Have you seen a strange dog, Solomon?" she asked.
"This morning, my lady?" he exclaimed in his shrill voice. "Strange dog? No, not I! Has one frightened you? Dog? Few dogs I see these sad days," he continued, with a gesture scornful of the present. "Dogs, indeed? Times were when we had packs for everything, for boars, and wolves, and deer, and hares, and vermin, and"--pausing in sheer inability to think of any other possible pack--"ay, each a pack, and more to them than I could ever count, or the huntsman either!"
"Yes, I know, Solomon. I have heard you say so at least. But you have not seen a strange dog this morning?"
"The morn! No, no, my lady! But last night I mind one--was't a deer-hound?"
"Yes, a deer-hound."
"Well, then, I can tell you," with a mysterious nod, "and no one else. It was with the riders who brought the young lady. But I'm mum," winking. "Not a word will they get out of me. Secrets? Ay, I'm the man can keep a secret. Why, I remember, talking of secrets and lives--and often they are all one----"
"But what became of the deer-hound?" she asked, ruthlessly cutting him short.
"Became of the dog?"--more shrilly than usual--he was a little hurt. "Is that all you want? It went with them as brought it, I do suppose. It didn't stop, anywise. But as I was saying about secrets--the secrets I have kept in old days--when there was no family had so many as ours----"
But she was gone. She had discovered what she wanted. And she was midway across the courtyard when the shrill sound of a hawk-whistle caught her ear. Turning she went through the gate again, and listened--not without a nervous feeling. Presently she could distinguish the dull tramp of a number of horses moving on the sward, the gay jingle of bit and spur, and mingled with these sounds the voices of a number of persons talking at their ease.
Warmly as the sun shone, she was aware of a shiver; of a presentiment that gripped and chilled her. Whatever it portended, however, whatever misfortune was in the air, the risk could not now be evaded. Already bright patches of moving colour glanced among the trees at the end of the approach, and steel points glittered amid the foliage, and feathers waved gaily above the undergrowth. She had barely time to tell Solomon to run and apprise her father of the arrival, when the head of the cavalcade wheeled, talking and laughing, into the avenue, and her sister, who rode in the van by the side of M. de Vlaye, espied her standing before the gate and waved a greeting.
Behind the Abbess rode a couple of women, one in the lay costume, liberally interpreted, of her order, the other of the world confessed; following close on their heels half a dozen horsemen completed the first party. The young Abbess bore a hooded hawk on her wrist, and the tinkle of its light silver bells mingled with the ripple of her voice as she approached, while two or three pairs of coupled hounds ran at her horse's heels. A little behind, separated from this select company by an interval of two score yards, followed the main body, a troop of some forty horse, in steel caps and corslets, with long swords swinging, and pistols in their holsters.
A more picturesque or more gallant company, as they swept by threes and fours into sight between the two grey pillars and rode towards the house under sun and shade, or a band that moved with a lordlier air, it had been hard to find, even in those days of show and pageantry, when men wore their fortunes on their backs. The Captain of Vlaye, stooping his sinewy figure to his companion, well became a horse that moved as he moved, and caracoled because he allowed it. His dark, keen face would have been as handsome as his form but for a blemish. In some skirmish of his youth he had lost the sight of an eye, and the blind orb gave his face a hard look which, so his enemies said, brought it into consonance with his character. He wore upturned moustaches without a beard, therein departing from the mode of the day. But his hunting-dress of white doeskin, with a fawn hat and belt, was in the fashion, and his horse's trappings shone almost as fine as the riding-dress of green and silver which set off his companion's tall figure and haughty face. In first youth a nose, too like her father's, and something over large in Odette de Villeneuve's frame, had foreshadowed charms not of the most feminine or the first order. But three years had supplied the carriage and the ripened and fuller contours that made her what she now was. To-day, if it pleased her to have at her beck one whose will was law, and whose stern manners invited few to intimacy--and in truth her infatuation for the successful adventurer knew no limits--he on his side found his account in parading, where he went, a woman whose beauty exceeded even her birth, and fell little short of her pride.
And she was content; she at least aimed at no more than setting on a safer basis the power she looked to share. It was she who, ignorant that her brother had joined them, had mentioned to her sister Vlaye's plan of suppressing the Crocans. That he had any other plan, that his views rose higher than a union with herself, that he hoped by a bold and secret stroke not only to secure what he had gained but to treble his resources--that his ambition, passing by a Villeneuve, dared to dream of an alliance with the ducal house of Longueville--of these things she had, as yet, no inkling. Not a jot, not a tittle. Nor was she likely to believe in their existence, save on evidence the clearest and most overwhelming.
Bonne knew more. She knew these things; and, as she went forward to meet the party, and after greeting her sister turned to her cavalier, the word "Welcome" stuck in her throat. She was conscious that her cheek grew a shade paler as she forced the word, that her knees shook. Her fear was that he would read the signs.
Ordinarily he would not have remarked them; partly because he was inured to meeting cowed looks, and partly because a careless scorn--masked where the Vicomte was concerned by a veneer of respect--was all to which he ever treated the Abbess's impoverished family. Crook-backed brother, tongue-tied sister, and the other fool, whose restive dislike had sometimes amused him--he held them all in equal and supreme contempt. But to-day he had his reasons for noting the girl more particularly; and the shadow of ill-temper that darkened his face lifted as her timid eye and fluttering colour confirmed his surmises.
"I thank you, I will not alight," he replied. "Your father is coming to the gate? M. le Vicomte is too kind, mademoiselle. But that being so, I will await him here."
The Abbess, with an air of patronage, touched Bonne's hair with the tip of her riding-switch. "Child, did you sleep in your clothes last night?" she said. "Or are you making hay with the kitchen-maids? See her blush, M. de Vlaye! What would you give me if I could blush as na?vely?" And her eyes rallied him, seeking a compliment in his. "But Abbesses who have been to Court----"
"Carry a court wherever they go," he replied. But his look did not leave Bonne's face. The Abbess's women and the rest of the company had drawn rein out of earshot, their horses making long necks that they might reach the grass, or poking their heads to crop a tender shoot. "I cannot alight," he continued, "for we are on an adventure, mademoiselle. I might almost say a pursuit."
"Do you know, child," her sister chimed in, "that Mademoiselle de Rochechouart never came to me last night? But you know nothing here--even, I daresay, that I expected her. How should you? You might as well live in a hole in the ground."
"She never came?" Bonne faltered, for the sake of saying something. The blush had subsided, leaving her paler than before.
"No, did I not say so? And she has not arrived today," the Abbess continued, flicking her horse's mane with her jewelled switch. "But some of her people were in by daylight this morning--from Heaven knows where--some hiding-place in the woods, I believe--making such a to-do as you would not credit. If they are to be believed, they were attacked near nightfall by the Crocans----"
"By the Crocans," M. de Vlaye repeated, nodding darkly at Bonne. He knew more than the Abbess knew of Charles's desperate venture.
"And M. de Vlaye," the Abbess continued, speaking in the negligent fashion, a trifle distant, in which she always addressed her family in his presence, "has most kindly sent out parties in search of her. Moreover, as I came this way on the same errand, he fell in with me, and came on--more, I believe, for her sake than mine"--with a look that called for contradiction--"to make inquiries in this direction. But on the way--but here is my father. Good morning, sir. M. de Vlaye----"
"Has been waiting some time, I fear," the Vicomte said hurriedly. He, too, was not free from embarrassment, but he hid it with fair success. "Why do you not alight and enter, my dear?"
"Because we have business, by your leave, sir," Vlaye answered, his politeness scarcely covering an undertone of meaning. And he told in a few words--while Bonne stood listening in an agony of suspense--what the Abbess had told her. "Fortunately, after I fell in with your daughter this morning," he proceeded, "I had news of the Countess. And where do you think, M. le Vicomte, we are told that she is?" he continued.
Fortunately the Vicomte, whose hands were beginning to tremble, and whose colour was mounting to his wrinkled cheek, could not immediately find his voice. It was his elder daughter who took on herself to answer. "Where do you think, sir?" she cried gaily. "In your hay-meadows--so M. de Vlaye says."
"Mademoiselle de Rochechouart? In my hay-meadows?" the Vicomte faltered.
"In my hay-meadows? It cannot be."
"It is so--or so we are told."


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